3 hijackers said to plan attacks while in Germany

Men collaborated with 3 others who are fugitives, Ashcroft states

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 24, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday that three of the suicide hijackers in the attacks on the United States helped plan the terrorist acts at a base in Hamburg, Germany, along with three other men who are now international fugitives.

The three fugitives - Said Bahaji, Ramsi Binalshibh and Zarakiya Essabar - are being sought by German authorities. They are the only people to be directly charged in last month's attacks, accused by German officials of belonging to an organized terrorist group and of helping plan the attacks that killed more than 5,000 people.

All three left Germany days before the attacks, and Ashcroft said authorities do not know where they are but fear they could be planning new violence.

"We've found that individuals involved in one set of terrorist acts frequently move on to develop and to work on the perpetration of others," the attorney general said.

He spoke yesterday in detail for the first time about the criminal inquiry's increasing attention overseas and to Germany in particular.

Ashcroft said the three fugitives had close connections to three of the hijackers - the presumed leader, Mohamed Atta, along with Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrahi. Atta and al-Shehhi are believed to have piloted the two planes that hit the World Trade Center towers; Jarrahi is thought to have been flying the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.

"It is clear that Hamburg served as a central base of operations for these six individuals and their part in the planning of the Sept. 11 attacks," Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft said U.S. investigators had been working with German authorities since "the first hours" after the attacks. But as some details of the terrorist cell's activities in Hamburg have emerged in recent weeks, Germany has come under scrutiny for not detecting sooner the tight-knit group that investigators now think had been active since at least 1999.

Speaking to reporters with Ashcroft, German Interior Minister Otto Schily said that his country was re-examining its security, surveillance and immigration procedures in the aftermath of the attacks.

"It is true that some of the terrorists have been in Germany and have prepared these cruel attacks," Schily said. "And we must say we failed to see it before" the terrorist acts were carried out.

But Schily said Germany was not alone, noting that terrorist cells have been found to have operated in several European countries.

"We all together failed to see it - what has happened, what has been prepared in the United States, what has happened in the United Kingdom, in France and elsewhere," he said.

Ashcroft said yesterday that authorities do not believe the three men are the only surviving planners of the attacks. He also said that no decision had been made about whether the men would face prosecution in the United States or in Germany.

No charges have been filed against the three men in the United States. But Mindy Tucker, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said U.S. investigators have reviewed the evidence that German prosecutors relied on to file their charges.

"When we feel it's appropriate to step forward and bring charges, we will do so," Tucker said.

Ashcroft said the priority for U.S. investigators was to find the three men.

Bahaji, a German citizen, attended a technical college in Hamburg with Atta in the 1990s, and together the men had petitioned the school for a Muslim prayer room. Bahaji is believed to have left Germany on Sept. 3.

Binalshibh, a Yemeni citizen, lived with Atta, Bahaji and Essabar for a time in Hamburg, Ashcroft said.

Investigators also believe that Jarrahi had tried to enroll Binalshibh in a flight school in Florida. He is believed to have fled Germany on Sept. 5.

Essabar, a Moroccan citizen, appears on a videotape of Bahaji's wedding, along with Jarrahi and al-Shehhi, Ashcroft said yesterday. Essabar had arranged to travel to Florida in February - a period when investigators think both Atta and al-Shehhi were in the state. He was last in Germany on Sept. 6.

"We would think that they would move toward some setting in which they felt a greater degree of security," Ashcroft said.

In the United States, authorities have detained 920 individuals in the sweeping investigation that followed the Sept. 11 attacks - the most intensive criminal inquiry in U.S. history. But none of those people has been charged with being directly involved in last month's attacks.

In recent weeks, the focus of the investigation appears to have shifted overseas. Germany has been a center point, with a dozen additional FBI agents dispatched to the country.

Investigators have not publicly described any ties between figures in Germany and Osama bin Laden, whom U.S. officials have blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks. One key link could be Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a suspected bin Laden lieutenant awaiting trial in Manhattan on charges related to the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa who made repeated visits to Germany in the 1990s.

Schily said German authorities feel a duty to help the United States uncover those behind the terrorist attacks.

"We know very well what we owe the United States people, the American people, out of the past," he said. "We know that there were young American soldiers that sacrificed their lives for freeing us from Nazi terror."

Yesterday, German police arrested a Turkish man who tried to board a flight to Iran while carrying in his luggage a CD-ROM describing how to wage a holy war and a suit designed to protect against biological and chemical weapons. There was no evidence of a connection to the Sept. 11 attacks.

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